Topic: Education and Child Policy

What the Useful Polling Shows about Common Core

Whether the Common Core is good policy, or was federally driven, is not dictated by polling results. But the Core’s political fate is tied to public opinion, which is probably why pro-Core pollsters are spinning like mad, and supporters like Bill Gates are undertaking a new PR blitz.

Achieve, Inc., a creator of the Core along with the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, has released Common Core survey results for several years running. What these polls have primarily been notable for finding is (1) very few people know much about the Common Core, and (2) if you feed respondents a glowing description of the Core they – surprise! – like it. At the end of last week, Achieve released their latest such survey.

What did they find? According to the main point of their summary, “solid majorities of voters support common standards, common assessments, and allowing teacher (sic) and students time to adjust to these new expectations.” But the really important finding was this: Of the people who reported knowing about the Common Core – those not relying on the loaded description of the Core as all wonderfully state-led and egalitarian – 40 percent reported having unfavorable opinions of the Core, versus 37 percent favorable.

Alas, Achieve blamed this, essentially, on people being misinformed by vocal Core opponents:

It is likely this mixed number is attributable to CCSS opponents who in the past year have made their opposition known through all media outlets, leaving a more negative “impression” among voters.

Opposition couldn’t be based on evidence and logic. No! Common Core is too pure and beloved. It must be coming form a lot of light-thinking, highly impressionable people. In contrast, respondents reporting that they agree with a loaded, glowing description they were just read? That’s real support!

Distaste for the Core among people who report being knowledgeable about it is mirrored in recent polling in New York, the state, along with Kentucky, that is furthest along implementing the Core. After massive “proficiency” decreases under its first round of Core testing, New York is also the state that is most convulsed. A February Siena College poll found Empire Staters very closely split on the Core.

That support cracks after people learn about the Core is almost certainly why defenders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bill Gates are undertaking a massive PR campaign to push the Core. Unfortunately, based on an ABC News interview with Gates this weekend, and longstanding pro-Core practice, the main messages are likely going to be that the Feds have nothing meaningful to do with the Core; high standards will revolutionize education; and anyone who tells you otherwise is willfully misleading you.

But here’s the thing: Core supporters can spin and spread gloss wherever they want, the more the public experiences the Core, the less they seem to like it. And then, of course, there is all the evidence and logic showing what a policy failure the Core is likely to be. You know, showing that the Feds have driven and must drive the Core; high standards – if the Core even is thatwill not fix education; and many Core opponents know exactly what they’re talking about.

Educational Choice IS Accountability

There’s been a lot of confusion over what constitutes “accountability” in education lately. In response, representatives of the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Friedman Foundation, Heartland Institute, and the Center for Education Reform have issued a joint open letter explaining why the best form of accountability is directly to parents.

To some, accountability means government-imposed standards and testing, like the Common Core State Standards, which advocates believe will ensure that every child receives at least a minimally acceptable education. Although well-intentioned, their faith is misplaced and their prescription is inimical to the most promising development in American education: parental choice.

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality. The compelled conformity fostered by centralized standards and tests stifles the very diversity that gives consumer choice its value.

This confusion about accountability is not limited just to tests. It even extends to personnel management. An example of this confusion comes to us today from a Republican legislator in Tennesee:

Rep. David Alexander, R-Winchester, a voucher critic, has filed an amendment that would tweak Gov. Bill Haslam’s voucher bill by requiring private schools that take public scholarship dollars to use the controversial Tennessee Evaluator Acceleration Model [TEAM] to grade its teachers.

The reason government schools need such heavy-handed evaluation systems is because tenure and union contracts make it nearly impossible to fire a teacher. According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ “School and Staffing Survey,” during the 2010-11 school year, only 1.9 percent of Tennessee teachers were dismissed or did not have their contracts renewed due to poor performance, up from 1.1 percent in 2007-08.

By contrast, private schools have greater flexibility than government schools over hiring, firing, and evaluating teachers. They’re also held directly accountable to parents, so there is market pressure not to retain teachers who perform poorly.

Moreover, the legislator’s argument that the government should force its evaluation system on private entities because they are accepting students who are publicly subsidized is patently absurd. It’s like arguing that all employees at grocery stores that accept food stamps or hospitals that accept Medicaid must be evaluated according to the same metrics as DMV employees.

State and local governments have the prerogative to devise whatever accountability measures they deem necessary to operate their schools and manage their employees. Private schools should continue to enjoy the freedom to set their own goals and to determine how best to measure their own performance and we should empower parents to choose the school that best meets their children’s needs.

Now You Can Draw Meaningful Time Trends from the SAT. Here’s How…

Over the years, countless reporters and even policy analysts have attempted to draw conclusions from changes in state SAT scores over time. That’s a mistake. Fluctuations in the SAT participation rate (the percentage of students actually taking the test), and in other state and student factors, are known to affect the scores.

But what if we could control for those confounding factors? As it happens, a pair of very sharp education statisticians (Mark Dynarski and Philip Gleason) revealed a way of doing just this—and of validating their results—back in 1993. In a new technical paper I’ve released this week, I extend and improve on their methods and apply them to a much larger range of years. The result is a set of adjusted SAT scores for every state reaching back to 1972. Vetted against scores from NAEP tests that are representative of the entire student populations of each state (but that only reach back to the 1990s), these adjusted SAT scores offer reasonable estimates of actual changes in states’ average level of SAT performance.

The paper linked above reveals only the methods by which these adjusted SAT scores can be computed, but next week Cato will publish a new policy paper and Web page presenting 100 charts—two for each state—illustraing the results. How has your state’s academic performance changed over the past two generations? Stay tuned to find out…

Update: Here’s the new paper and charts!

The SAT Commits Suicide

The College Board announced this week that it is dropping the more arcane words and more advanced mathematics from its SAT test, among other changes. This, however noble its intentions, seems counterproductive and institutionally suicidal.

The purpose of the SAT is to help predict success in college. It does this in the same way as every other test: by distinguishing between those who know the tested content and those who do not. Not surprisingly, most modern tests are designed using something called “Item Discrimination Analysis.” That unfortunately-named technique has nothing to do with racism or classism. It is simply a mathematical formula. What it does is measure, for every question, the difference between the percentage of high-performers who got the question right and the percentage of low-performers who got it right. In general, the higher this “Discrimination Index” (DI) rises, the more useful the question is and therefore the more likely it is to be retained.

The problem with the College Board’s announced revisions is that they seem likely to eliminate questions with high DI values in favor of others with lower DI values. You might guess that reducing the SAT’s ability to distinguish between high and low performers would inhibit its ability to predict college success. But you don’t have to guess, because there’s already at least one recent study that looked at this question. What the authors found is that the DI value of SAT mathematics questions is usually the strongest contributor to the test’s ability to predict college success—by a wide margin.

There’s a good chance that the College Board is aware of this study since two of its three authors work for the College Board and the Board hosts a presentation about the study on its own website.

The Board’s changes are intended to make the SAT more fair. In practice, they seem likely to make it less useful. And as its usefulness diminishes, so will the number of colleges using it. If this proves to be the case—and we’ll know for sure in just a few years—the College Board will have succeeded in doing something that its critics have been unable to accomplish despite decades of effort: killing the SAT.

We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help: School Lunch Edition

How much does a “free” school lunch cost?

In the last few years, First Lady Michelle Obama has worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make school lunches healthier. In 2011, Neal McCluskey argued that, though well-intentioned, the changes would result in more wasted food, higher costs, and major implementation challenges. The General Accounting Office has now issued a report that confirms these concerns:

According to the GAO report, local and state authorities told researchers the new standards have resulted in more waste, higher food costs, challenges with menu planning and difficulties in sourcing products that meet the federal portion and calorie requirements.

When such decisions are made at the local level, schools can solicit and respond to feedback from parents and students. However, when the proverbial faceless bureaucrat in some distant Washington office decides, the rules tend to be uniform and inflexible, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences:

The federal government’s changes to school lunch menus have been disastrous, causing problems for cafeterias trying to comply with the rules and leaving the menu so expensive or unpalatable that more than 1 million students have stopped buying lunch, according to a government audit…

One school district told federal investigators that it had to add unhealthy pudding and potato chips to its menu to meet the government’s minimum calorie requirements. Other school districts removed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from their elementary school menus.

Five of the eight school districts surveyed by the Government Accountability Office, the official watchdog for Congress, said they believed students were going hungry because of smaller entree portions demanded by the rules.

In other words, the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

Two-thirds of states reported on the GAO survey that implementation in 2012-13 was a “very great challenge” or an “extreme challenge.” The report noted that much of the difficulty was related to the sheer volume of regulations. In just 18 months, the USDA issued 1,800 pages of “guidance” for following the new rules. Moreover, the “guidance” was “provided too late in the 2012-2013 school year to be helpful” because schools “had already planned menus and trained food service staff” on what they thought the new rules required. However, some guidance memos “either substantively changed or contradicted aspects of previously issued memos.” When state officials contacted the USDA’s regional offices for guidance on understanding the “guidance,” the USDA staff were “sometimes unable to answer state questions on the guidance.” 

Let’s hope this serves as a cautionary tale for those who want the federal government to play a larger role in education policy in general.

SAT Changes = Bad News for Common Core?

Working on education every day, you get used to your subject rarely making major national news, probably because the troubles are constant and sudden crises rare.  But change the SAT – once known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test – and all heck breaks loose. Of course, something else has been springing heck all over the country, too  – the Common Core – but because that fight has been taking place mainly at the state level, the nation’s collective attention has never been turned to it all at once. The SAT brouhaha might, however, change that, likely to the chagrin of Core defenders.

What’s the connection between the Core and the SAT? A big one: David Coleman, who is both a chief architect of the Core and president of the SAT-owning College Board. Coleman announced when he took over the Board that he would align the SAT with the Core, and it was clear in the Board’s SAT press release that that is what’s happening. Employing Common Core code, the Board announced that the new SAT will focus on “college and career readiness.”

Why is this potentially bad news for Core supporters? Because the SAT changes are widely being criticized as dumbing-down the test – good-bye words like “prevaricator,” hello toughies like “synthesis” – and that may drive attention to people who are questioning the quality of the Core. Illustrating unhappiness with the changes, in the Washington Post yesterday both a house editorial and a column by Kathleen Parker dumped on the coming SAT reforms, with the editorial stating:

It sounds as though students could conceivably get a perfect score on the new exam and yet struggle to fully comprehend some of the articles in this newspaper. Colleges should want to know if their would-be English majors are conversant in words more challenging than “synthesis,” or that their scores reflect more than lucky bubble guesses…

Maybe even more troubling than losing an outlet like the Post, if you’re a Core supporter, is possibly losing a guy like Andy Smarick at the pro-Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Last week Smarick defended knowledge of words that SAT bosses now deem too “obscure.” To be sure, Smarick didn’t “decimate” the new SAT (see the post), but his critique was enough to elicit a response from Coleman himself.

From a Core opposition perspective, it is crucial that people make the connection between the SAT and the Core, and that may be happening. The Post noted that “it’s no accident that this push comes from a College Board president who helped produce the K-12 Common Core standards.” Similarly, the New York Times report on the changes identified Coleman as “an architect of the Common Core curriculum standards.”

Making this connection is important because Core supporters’ major pro-Core (as opposed to anti-Core-opponent) argument is that the standards are highly “rigorous.” That claim has taken heat from several subject-matter experts, but they have struggled to be heard amidst pro-Core rhetoric.  Sudden and intense national scrutiny of the SAT, if directly connected to the Core, might help doubters of Core excellence get more attention.

Of course, the primary reason to object to the Core is not that it may or may not be high-quality – though that is certainly an important concern – but that it is being foisted on the nation through federal power, and a monopoly over what schools teach is a huge problem. It kills competition among differing ideas and models of education, stifles innovation, and severely limits the ability of children – who are all unique individuals – to access education tailored to their specific needs, abilities, and dreams.

Common Core opponents should be encouraged by a national critique of coming SAT changes not, ultimately, because the changes are good or bad, but because serious scrutiny could well bolster resistance to the federally driven Core. In so doing, it could help to preserve some of the freedom necessary to ensure that standards have to earn their business rather than having children handed to them by Washington.

Kansas Court Wrests School-Budget Decisions from Voters

Many public schooling advocates chafe at our constitutional tradition that public moneys be appropriated only at the behest of voters or their elected lawmakers, since it means school budgets often wind up getting rejected, trimmed, or balanced off against other budgetary priorities. As I’ve noted previously in this space, a well-organized, foundation-backed movement has pursued litigation around the 50 states urging courts instead to seize control of school funding in the name of “equitable” or “adequate” school funding.

Such an effort succeeded last week in Kansas, where the state supreme court ruled in favor of a challenge and “ordered increases by July 1 that, according to the state Department of Education, would total $129 million annually.” The case will go back to litigation in a lower court and conceivably could result in further court decrees that could be broader and much more expensive. The Kansas affiliate of the National Education Association can hardly contain its jubilation, while the Associated Press writes that “If the courts order more spending in the future, lawmakers may have to reconsider personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 that were championed by [Gov. Sam] Brownback.”

As I wrote a while back on New Jersey’s Abbott school finance litigation (one broken link removed):

school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance…. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.